Saturday, April 21, 2007


Me and Arnie at karaoke, Bengkel, Central Jakarta.

One annoying thing about border crossings is the constant filling out of forms. And having been in and out of 6 countries in 2 weeks, I’m beginning to wish my middle name was shorter than “Harshawardhana”. Damn, the Indonesian immigration form doesn’t even give you enough space to write that.

I weighed myself the other day. After 3 weeks’ holiday, I am officially 3 kilos heavier, and it ain’t muscle. Fortunately I am in Asia, where being fat is considered a sign of prosperity (my mum tells her friends they are fat all the time). So according to my rough calculations I am now about 5% more prosperous. That’s a pretty good growth rate for 3 weeks – invest in me now.

Try telling your girlfriend she’s getting a bit prosperous and see how she takes it.

Arrived in Jakarta. I think that a country's airport can tell you something about the country itself. At Singapore or Hong Kong things are extremely slick and efficient, with lots of gadgetry on display to keep transiting travellers amused. Australia's airports are
notable for their strict approach to quarantine - gotta keep those foreign things out! Jakarta airport is hardly a positive first impression for a traveller - poor administration and long queues, and bad toilets without paper.

Speaking of which, a proud record of mine has finally come to an end. Many of you have heard my talk about my aversion to the traditional Indonesian manner of going to the toilet (ie. without toilet paper, just some water and one's left hand). I had managed to go for 30 years and 11 or so trips to Indonesia without having to step outside my comfort zone and resort to this method.
Yet this time I had no choice. I was at my aunty's home in Tebet, Jakarta. Normally there is toilet paper, but this time it had run out. I realised, turning to the water filled bak mandi, that my moment of reckoning had arrived. And to be honest, it wasn't that bad. I was about to have a shower anyway, and let's just say that as number 2's go, it was pretty "tidy".

Driving home late after karaoke, my relatives and I were pulled over by a police officer. He informed us that one of our rear lights was not working. This was a load of crap - it was working perfectly - but that's not the point. We paid him Rp50.000 ($AU8) and he went on his way without any more hassle.
Its a sad fact that Indonesia is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Being hit up for a bribe by a police officer is such a common occurrence that it barely raises an eyebrow. It is actually deeply entrenched within the force. Andi informs me that officers actually need to pay their superiors money in order to use police vehicles, or in order to secure a promotion. Which means that the officer on the street is constantly accumulating debts just for doing his job, so he needs to make up the money somewhere. So they shakedown motorists and innocents, while letting criminals off for a fee. If you have property stolen, it is routine for the police to ask for money to find it.
Where they find the time to fight crime is beyond me.

For all those of you who resent "big government" and its constant intrusion on your day-to-day activities, learn a lesson from Indonesia. As a huge, poor nation with an ineffecual bureacracy and law enforcement, you can observe what happens when there is no rules that govern the minutiae of daily life. Traffic is pure anarchy, while theft of anything left in a public place is a certainty. As my cousin Nesa says, "We are a clever country - clever at stealing and clever at talking sh*t."
Some take the law into their own hands. You often hear of mobs in the rural villagers, ganging together to kill someone suspected of practising witchcraft. While in Jakarta the FPI (Front for the Defence of Islam) have been assembling to destroy bars and other establishments they consider immoral.

But the creativity and improvising spirit needed to negotiate the daily urban jungle also gives rise to some careers which you would never think of. Two examples:

- those young men who hang around at the worst traffic intersections, and direct traffic when it becomes too chaotic. Passing drivers lean out the window and give them tips - Nesa once made Rp50.000 in half an hour doing this on a whim.

- when, to ease traffic congestion, the government declared that some main roads in the city would be only for cars with 2 or more passengers, street kids started hiring themselves out as passengers, allowing single drivers to get around the regulations.

Food is fantastic in Indonesia, and it is a passion. When driving up to the hill town of Puncak on a day trip, we drove for kilometres and saw almost nothing but eating places lining the road. Word of mouth is very important for a street vendor or restaurant in gaining business, and Indonesians will always be able to recommend the best place in any given area for whatever dish you are keen to try.

There are a number of good indigenous cuisines, but the 2 that stand out are Padang food and Sundanese food. Padang-style, from West Sumatra, is the most ubiquitous cuisine throughout Indonesia. It is notable for its richness, with Indian-influenced spicing, coconut curries, and deep-fried offal. Sundanese cuisine (from West Java, not to be confused with food from Sudan) is notable for its extensive use of fresh herbs and vegetables, and food steamed with spices inside banana leaves, and seems a much healthier style of cooking - Sundanese women are renowned for the beauty and vigor, attributed to their eating habits. One Sundanese restaurant in my neighbourhood had a staggering 30 selections ready on display when I walked in for breakfast at 10am.

The best restaurant I have been to in Indonesia is called Payon, in Kemang. If you are in Jakarta, go there - that's an order. Its very spicy, and in the Sundanese style, while the restaurant itself is beautiful and picturesque, with a very trendy take on the traditional Javanese garden. It is to my great shame that I didn't bring my camera and so have to use a photo I pinched from somewhere else. (Update: I have written a more detailed review of Payon's food here.)

Payon - Authentic Indonesian Restaurant & shops
Jl.Kemang Raya no.17, Jakarta 12730
Phone: 021-7194826

Unique food: Indonesia doesn't get the credit it deserves as a great food country, when compared to say, Thailand or Vietnam. But there are many ingredients and recipes unique to this country that are waiting to be explored.
Vegetables: Ginseng leaves, melinjo (bitternut) leaves, salam leaves.
Oncom is a unique Indonesian soya product, similar to the Japanese okara, made with fermented residual fibre from making bean curd. It is like the more familiar tempeh, but mushier and more subtle in taste. The Sundanese take this and mix it with a sambal of shallots, garlic and chili, then add lencak (pea eggplants).
Pepes implies a Sundanese dish rolled into a banana-leaf packet, sealed with a toothpick and steamed. You can buy pepes of fish, meat, mushroom, tempeh or bean curd, which are combined with various spices (such as lemon grass and turmeric leaf) and then steamed.
Urap is a common dish of chopped vegetables steamed with grated coconut and spices; the best I've tried include kemangi (lemon basil), which lifts it into a whole new dimension.

Weird food: Indonesians quite like to combine food items that don't seem like they were meant to go together. Kopi Sereh (Black coffee with lemongrass) is an example, as is Bajigor (sweet ginger tea with coconut milk). Soda Gembira (Happy Soda) is soda water mixed with condensed milk and syrup, while Teh Telur is hot tea beaten with egg and condensed milk (again) - tastes like tea-flavoured custard.

But most unusual is Indonesia's relationship with cheese. A relative newcomer to the region, cheese in Indonesia is bland processed stuff, slightly salty with no particular character. Which makes it perfect to be used in unorthodox ways, such as in sweet dishes. A favourite street snack is martabak manis, basically a freshly made pancake/crumpet topped with chocolate and grated cheese.
The cheese donut I tried at J.Co was less successful however.
One of the most surprising dishes I ate (at Cafe d'Excelso, Senayan City) was a banana fritter in flaky batter, drizzled with condensed milk and topped with grated cheese. Odd, but kind of brilliant in a strange way. Latin Americans also understand the affinity between cheese and bananas.

Stinky foods: Apart from durian, there is petai (also called stinky bean or twisted cluster bean); petai is quite tasty but your breath, flatulence and urine will stink of it for the next 3 days. We also ate this in Thailand, where they call it sator.

Bitter food: Apart from the wrinkly green bitter melon, popular all over Asia, many Indonesians eat papaya leaves. This is the most bitter food I can imagine anyone ever eating; it tastes like aspirin but worse. Apparently it has anti-malarial properties, and is useful in Eastern Indonesia where mosquito-borne diseases are still a big problem.

Chinese-Indonesian food: Like other countries in the region, Indonesian cuisine is strongly influenced by the Chinese. However, over time we have put our own spin on things. For example:
Siomay: these are steamed dim sum - Indonesians make them with fish rather than pork, and serve with spicy peanut sauce.
Nasi Goreng: the original Chinese version is vastly improved by the spiced-up Indonesian version.
Bubur ayam: rice porridge (congee) with chicken; the local style has lots of chili and sweet soya sauce (kecap manis)

At karaoke at Bengkel, in Central Jakarta.

My cousin Muni enjoying karaoke.

Mum, Andi, me and Peter.


  1. Wow, if I didn't have agoraphobia I would travel there.